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Disney’s Influence on U.S. Copyright Law

August 26, 2021
Image of Mickey Mouse’s name on the Hollywood Hall of Fame and logo of Mickey Mouse & Friends TV show

U.S. Copyright Law has gone through many revisions and expansions since the first copyright provision was officially added to the U.S. Constitution in 1790.1 This original provision allowed authors the right to print, re-print or publish their work for 14 years, with the option to renew the copyright for another fourteen years. Today, copyrights can last well over 100 years, with the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extending copyright protection for most works to the life of the creator, plus 70 years.2

Media giant The Walt Disney Company, with its many original characters and stories, has been a major player when it comes to influencing the evolution of U.S. copyright law. Let’s explore two of the major acts that Disney played a part in during the later half of the 20th century that have brought us to where we currently stand in terms of U.S. copyright law.

The Copyright Act of 1976

Mickey Mouse first came onto the scene in 1928 when Walt Disney released Steamboat Willie. As copyright law stood at that time, this iteration of Mickey Mouse was allowed 56 years of protection, as copyright law was changed to a 28 year protection term with the option to renew for another 28 years in 1909.3 Under the 1909 provision, the protections for Steamboat Willie should have expired in 1984 and the character would have fallen into public domain, meaning anyone could use the character however they pleased, even for profit, without having to secure permission or pay royalties to a creator or company.

With this date on the horizon, The Walt Disney Company began seriously lobbying for Congress to make further changes to the Copyright Act. Considering U.S. copyright law had not seen any major changes since 1909 while the U.S. and the world had seen many technological advances in the early 20th century with radio, movies and television bursting onto the scene, it made sense for Congress to examine the intellectual property questions that were raised with these new forms of communication.

The hard lobbying paid off, with Congress enacting copyright reform through the Copyright Act of 1976. This revision allowed works to be protected for the author’s life, plus 50 years, or 75 years for works owned by corporations. This pushed protection for Mickey Mouse to 2003.

Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998

As the 2003 deadline loomed, Disney did not sit idle. Since the 1976 win, Disney continued lobbying activities to influence copyright law. In 1998, Congress adopted the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, also known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, as the celebrity and congressman had supported copyright protection extensions prior to his death in early 1998. The act was named in his honor. Detractors to this act called it “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”3

This revision allowed copyrights to last the author’s lifetime, plus 70 years. For corporations, copyright law protects works for 95 years from their original publication, or 120 years from creation, based on whichever expires first. This pushes Disney’s copyright claims to Steamboat Willie through 2023.4

What’s Next for Disney Copyright?

Disney’s copyright for Steamboat Willie will expire on January 1, 2024 and this original iteration of Mickey Mouse will fall into public domain. It is not yet clear what Disney intends to do as this deadline looms, but based on past precedent, we can assume that lobbying efforts to further revise U.S. copyright laws will ramp up.

Disney has amassed an expansive library of characters over the years as it takes on ownership of new and existing properties. The company’s sheer size makes it a power player when it comes to influencing intellectual property laws. Most recently, Disney has become embroiled in a legal battle brought against their 20th Century imprint related to The Predator franchise.5 The franchise creators are looking to use a legal loophole that allows creators to cancel transfers of their works after a period of 35 years. This battle could have a major impact on copyright law, especially ahead of the copyright expiration on the Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse character.

There is a lot to sort through when it comes to Disney’s influence on U.S. copyright law, and this article has only scratched the surface. Interested in learning more about this topic and other intellectual property law legal issues? Read about the most famous intellectual property cases to date.

Intellectual property cases continue to grow, placing attorneys in this specialty among the top paid legal professionals in the country.6 Explore the online programs offered through Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, including the Online LL.M. in Intellectual Property.

  1. Retrieved August 24, 2021 from arl.org/copyright-timeline/
  2. Retrieved August 24, 2021 from copyright.gov/title17/92preface.html
  3. Retrieved August 20, 2021 from financialpoise.com/copyright-law/
  4. Retrieved August 20, 2021 from arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/01/a-whole-years-worth-of-works-just-fell-into-the-public-domain/
  5. Retrieved August 23, 2021 from insidethemagic.net/2021/04/screenwriters-sue-disney-predator-copyright-jm1/
  6. Retrieved August 24, 2021 from hasnerlaw.com/what-are-the-highest-paid-types-of-lawyers/